Study: Americans skeptical of COVID-19 contact tracing apps

Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, technologists and health officials have looked to technologies – including smartphone contact tracing applications – to stem the spread of the virus. But contact tracing apps, which require a critical mass of adopters to be effective, face serious obstacles in the U.S., Cornell researchers have found.

In “Americans’ Perceptions of Privacy and Surveillance in the COVID-19 Pandemic,” published Dec. 23 in PLOS One, Baobao Zhang, a Klarman Postdoctoral Fellow in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Sarah Kreps, the John L. Wetherill Professor of Government, report that Americans continue to be deeply skeptical of contact tracing technology and hesitant to adopt other preventive measures.

However, they also found that support among Americans for digital contact tracing tends to increase with stronger privacy protections.

“While digital contact tracing apps are a promising tool to limit the spread of COVID-19, we found that public perceptions of digital contact tracing are a barrier to widespread adoption,” Zhang and Kreps wrote. “Therefore, governments looking to deploy digital contact tracing must invest not only in the app itself but also in a significant public education campaign to encourage adoption.”

Contact tracing apps must not be treated as a standalone solution to the pandemic, they wrote. Instead, apps must be part of a greater public health strategy that takes into consideration the needs and concerns of various populations, such as the elderly and homeless, who have a lower percentage of smartphone access, and Black Americans, who have particular concerns about surveillance.

Zhang and Kreps surveyed 2,000 Americans, asking about support for various COVID-19 surveillance measures, both app-based and traditional. The survey also collected information on respondents’ demographics, political views and personal experience with COVID-19.

Fewer respondents, 42%, want the government to encourage universal use of contact tracing apps, compared with other surveillance measures such as enforcing temperature checks (62%), expanding traditional contact tracing (57%), carrying out centralized quarantine (49%), deploying electronic device monitoring (44%) or implementing immunity passes (44%).

“I was not totally surprised by the results, given that there is a growing distrust of new technology in the U.S.,” said Zhang, who researches trust in and governance of digital technology and artificial intelligence.

But the study also found that more people (44%) were willing to use contact tracing apps that offer decentralized data storage local to phones, rather than centralized storage (39%). Decentralized data storage preserves a higher degree of privacy, Zhang and Kreps wrote, while centralized storage is more useful to public health authorities trying to understand how the virus is spreading.

The researchers also found that people hold onto misinformed beliefs about contact tracing technology even after reading about how the app works, but misinformed beliefs were not associated with opposition to downloading and using the apps.

Moreover, respondents who had been ill themselves or who’d had an ill family member were more likely to support contact tracing apps and expanded surveillance in general. And despite partisan differences on a range of surveillance measures, support for the government encouraging digital contact tracing turned out to be indistinguishable between Democrats (47%) and Republicans (46%), although more Republicans opposed the policy (39%) compared to Democrats (27%).

Zhang and Kreps said this study applies to current policy debates around digital contact tracing, and their research was cited in a U.S. Senate report in July. As of Dec. 14, contact tracing apps are operating in 19 U.S. states and in Washington, D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico. Almost all of these apps use the Apple/Google Exposure Notification system, which does not track users’ location and stores the data locally on users’ phones, Zhang said.

Political leaders, both Democrat and Republican, should encourage the use of secure, privacy-preserving contact tracing apps, said Zhang, while also taking the public’s concerns about new technology seriously when implementing new tech solutions.

“Although the app can effectively reduce transmission at all levels of adoption, epidemiological modeling suggests that an app could stop the pandemic if the app were adopted by 60% of the population,” Zhang and Kreps wrote. “Indeed, the adoption of smartphone contact tracing may be an example of conditional cooperation, in which individuals are only willing to participate if they perceive others will participate as well.”

The corresponding author of the study was Nina McMurry of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Berlin, Germany.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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		 Phone showing contact tracing app